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By Maggie Price
Harlequin Enterprises, Ltd.Copyright © 2003 Harlequin Enterprises, Ltd.
All right reserved.
Chapter OneAs a member of the FBI's elite evidence support team, Rory Sinclair's hopping a flight from D.C. without much advance notice usually meant he was headed to a crime scene. His rainy-night arrival in California wasn't the case, although he'd stowed his computer and field evidence kit in the trunk of the car he had rented three hours ago at the San Francisco airport. For the first time in years, Special Agent Rory Sinclair was off the Bureau's clock and on his own time.
Time, that Rory had agreed to spend posing as a civilian chemist while conducting a surveillance at a widow's homey bed-and-breakfast.
With rain slanting down through the darkness, the sign welcoming Rory to Prosperino - a town hailing itself as a tourist's mecca on the rugged northern California coast - glistened in the car's headlights.
From what Rory could see of the flower-laden planters and neat benches that lined the sidewalks in front of a row of darkened storefronts, Prosperino looked picture-postcard perfect, everything calm and serene. Untroubled.
The urgent call Rory had received the previous day from Blake Fallon, his former college roommate, told Rory there was at least one imperfection on Prosperino's charming facade. That imperfection came in the form of the mysterious contamination of the water supply on Hopechest Ranch, the haven for troubled adolescents and teens where Blake served as director. The contamination had occurred weeks ago. Since then, Blake had watched a series of Hopechest's staff and residents fall ill while the EPA inspector assigned to the case conducted his investigation at a suspicious snail's pace.
Peering through the rain-spattered windshield, Rory spotted the road to Honeywell House marked on the map Blake had faxed him. Braking, he turned, then steered along a thin ribbon of road that curved up a hill. Although Rory had Blake's assurances that the widow Honeywell ran a first-class establishment, comfort wasn't the reason Rory was headed there. EPA Inspector Charlie O'Connell had checked into Honeywell House weeks ago. Rory wanted a close look at the man who had raised Blake's suspicions by conducting at least one clandestine meeting on Hopechest Ranch property.
Honeywell House was impressive, Rory decided as he drove past a wooden sign that welcomed him to the inn. Small spotlights spread dramatic fans of illumination across the face of the building that nestled against the hillside. Inside, lights burned gold behind windows dotting four stories, the upper one ringed by a widow's walk.
Rory pulled the car into the gravel lot at the side of the house and climbed out, thankful that the rain had slowed to a light mist. When he turned to walk toward the back of the car, he noted the outline of a small greenhouse sitting a few yards away.
He retrieved his leather duffel bag, computer and field kit out of the trunk, then headed up the waterbeaded cobblestone walk. He took the steps two at a time that led up to the large, wraparound porch. Although he'd never given much thought to his surroundings, something compelled him to turn and look back toward the road he'd just driven. The inn sat high enough on the hill that, past the wash of light from the streetlamps, he could see a wedge of the rocky cliffs that edged the fierce, churning Pacific. Mrs. Honeywell, he mused, had herself a piece of prime real estate.
Pushing open the inn's carved double doors, Rory left the chilling mist behind him. A mix of scents wafted in the warm air - lemon, cinnamon and lavender. The foyer was spacious with waist-high oak wainscoting from which colorful wallpaper rose. A handsome mahogany reception counter sat in the center of a gold and cream tapestry rug that pooled over the polished wood floor.
Through an archway to his left he glimpsed a study lined with shelves crowded with books. The room had a high ceiling, wood floor and a green-marbled fireplace in which flames fed on thick logs that burned with a woodsy smell. The plump leather couch in front of the hearth looked like a great spot to curl up with a book.
He doubted he would have time to do that on this trip.
Turning his attention back to the foyer, he noted the brass plaque inscribed "Private" affixed to the wall beside a door that stood partially ajar.
Rory settled his bags against the wall, took two steps toward the reception desk, then halted when a deep voice coming from behind the door said, "There's no need to put your back up just because a man pays you attention."
"That kind of attention isn't welcome," a woman responded. "Touch me again, and you and all of your belongings will be out in the street. You have my word on that."
Rory arched a brow. The woman's voice was as steady as the January mist that shrouded the inn. With an ample spicing of temper.
Shifting his stance, he peered through the doorway into what appeared to be a small office. He could see one side of a bookcase, a file cabinet and a portion of a desk. It was the woman standing at the front of that desk, facing sideways, who commanded his attention. She was medium height with a delicate build, squared shoulders and creamy skin that held the trace of a flush. An angry flush, Rory theorized, considering the tone of her voice. Her dark hair fell, wave after wave, over the shoulders of her vivid turquoise sweater; the hem of a long black skirt skimmed her calves.
When the owner of the bass voice stepped closer to the woman, he moved into Rory's line of sight. The man was tall and solid with a square jaw and sharp eyes. Judging from the brown hair just going to gray, Rory put his age at forty-something. He wore brown slacks and a tan sweater, its sleeves shoved up on his well-developed forearms.
"I didn't come in here meaning to upset you." Although the deep voice had softened, Rory caught the hard edge to the words. "Look at it this way, we're both unattached. We have mutual needs. What's the harm in helping each other satisfy those needs?"
"The only need you can help me satisfy is to leave this office. That way I can start getting my inn settled for the night."
Excerpted from Protecting Peggy by Maggie Price Copyright © 2003 by Harlequin Enterprises, Ltd.. Excerpted by permission.
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